John T. Edge, who defines himself as an “eater, writer and educator,” conquered that project and ultimately wrote his newest book, “The Truck Food Cookbook — 150 Recipes and Ramblings from America’s Best Restaurants on Wheels.”
John T., as he is known by friends and family, grew up in Clinton, Ga., taking weekend field trips to Atlanta with his father to uncover the mysteries of ethnic food and enjoying his mother’s crispy, creamy corn sticks made in a cast iron mold.
After six years at the University of Georgia, essentially majoring in fraternity life and rebellion, John T. left without a degree and found great success in Atlanta’s financial world.
Ten years later, John T.’s life took a huge turn when he decided to return to college at Ole Miss and enroll in the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, where he ultimately earned his master’s degree. In 1999 he became the director of the brand new Southern Foodways Alliance, which defines its mission as documenting, studying and celebrating “the diverse food cultures of the changing American South.”
Today John T. writes a monthly food column for The New York Times appropriately titled “United Tastes.” Over the years, he has written articles for every major food magazine in the country, authored six books, and co-authored and contributed to many others.
John T. appeared on television shows “Iron Chef” and “CBS Sunday Morning,” became a familiar voice on National Public Radio and for a short while, sold Dunce Dogs from his own hotdog-shaped cart on the square in Oxford, Miss.
While some refer to John T. as the “Pied Piper of Southern Food,” his interest and youthfully spirited enthusiasm actually extends to all food as he commented, “We define ourselves by what we eat.”
Most recently, many lucky eaters have been defining themselves by enjoying the innovative dishes developed by the chefs caught up in the surge of food trucks which is occurring in cities all over the country. So John T. set out to study, understand and present the world of food trucks in his latest book.
He believes the recent popularity of this blossoming food movement is based on several essential factors. First, the economy dictated the move from overwhelmingly expensive brick-and-mortar restaurants to a venue where creative thinkers can buy a used laundry truck, U-Haul trailer or a vintage Airstream, and convert it into a “small restaurant on wheels.”
Additionally, while truck food patrons may want food fast, they do not want fast food. Therefore, as John T. explains, “…We’ve begun to fuse our demand for quick access food with a demand for honest and delicious food.” While honest and delicious, truck food is anything but ordinary and he defines it as “Artisanal food on a paper plate.”
Equipped with some type of mobile unit and unending imagination, these food truck chefs are thriving in cities like Austin, Minneapolis, Durham, Portland, Seattle, Tucson and San Francisco. They sell Crawfish Pies from the Swamp Shack, Grilled Cheese Mac and Cheese Sandwiches from the Grilled Cheese Truck and Morning Burgers from the Only Burger van. At Fliphappy Crepes, the pair of female chefs offers Moroccan Chicken Crepes from a 1966 Airstream-style trailer and customers eat at picnic tables shaded by pecan trees. The Bike Basket Pies baker prepares cupcake-size Shaker Lemon Pies in her home kitchen in San Francisco and delivers them on her bicycle. Twin sisters in Minneapolis serve Meet Me in the Morning Dogs in a 31-foot 1978 Chevrolet bus.
Spoonfed Grill —
food truck pioneer
Fortunately, there is no need to pack a suitcase, fill up the gas tank and take off on an extended road trip to discover the delights of this rapidly growing, extremely popular food trend. In downtown Birmingham, on many week days, from about 11 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., you can find three shining examples parked in the general area of 5th Avenue North and 20th Street.
Pioneer truck Spoonfed Grill, owned by Jason Parkman, has been on the street since 2009, essentially blazing the trail for other food trucks through the maze of roadblocks created by a lack of regulations and the basic newness of this type of venture.
Although his official title is executive chef, Spoonfed’s Michael Brandon describes himself in a much more casual way as “head chef, dishwasher and maintenance man.” His open, friendly manner exemplifies one of the benefits of truck food — access to the chef. Customers observe and converse with the person who prepares the food, often offering important feedback, while making street business the best advertising for the underlying catering business.
Influenced by his father, an international airline pilot who brought home ideas for all types of different food, his mother’s Hawaiian background, and family travels, Michael began his journey in the food industry at 18 when he worked for a catering company. After graduating from Samford University and Culinard, the Culinary Institute of Virginia College, he worked for several fine dining establishments — Ocean, Table, and Hot and Hot Fish Club.
After 10 years in the business, Michael was working on a plan for his own food truck when the serendipitous opportunity to take the position at Spoonfed appeared. After two years, he revels in the creativity the food truck offers him and the two chefs who work with him.
Boasting flavors “from the South to Southwest,” Spoonfed’s menu presents Soul Bowls, (Korean Seoul — “seared steak, quick ‘kimchee,’ cilantro lime rice & special sauce;” Latin Soul — “fried jack cheese grits, garlicky spinach, pico de gallo, tomatillo sauce and feta;” Southern Soul — “kickin’ collards, roasted sweet potatoes, pulled pork and Alicia’s tomato chutney.”)
Sandwiches include Blue Cheese Burgers and Slow Roasted Pork Sandwiches with crunchy cabbage mix and moritola dipping sauce (fat free ranch dressing with smoked jalapenos.)
Honey chicken and pork roll-ups join a trio of quesadillas. Michael recommends a Chorizo Quesadilla to a newcomer — a tasty combination of a variety of flavors — “jack cheese, caramelized onions, chorizo sausage & orange scented kale,” served with a side of Watermelon and Feta Salad highlighted with balsamic vinaigrette.
Spoonfed’s customers are happy to stop and chat while they wait on their lunch. One who works in Fairfield picks up lunch four days a week after his mid-day workout at the YMCA. Another, a transplanted New Yorker, is thrilled to see the food truck business off and running in Birmingham.
“Local food fast”
Last summer experienced chefs Mac Russell and Chad Schofield took Shindigs Catering to the streets of downtown Birmingham with an aim to offer healthy lunch choices using local food.
After attending Culinard and working together at Hot and Hot Fish Club, the truck venture was a natural extension of their young catering business. While the Shindigs slogan is “Local Food Fast,” these chefs meticulously adhere to their shared goal to satisfy customers by providing lunch efficiently without sacrificing good health or food quality.
They fry in healthy, hypoallergenic oil, use honey and agave nectar in place of refined sugar, purchase beef and poultry raised in open pastures without antibiotics or hormones, and the ultimate results are satisfyingly delicious.
Shindigs customers are greeted by a smiling order taker who patiently explains the menu items and is happy to recommend a selection to a curious new patron. Perusing the menu automatically evokes a smile for the clever names of the dishes as well as an anticipation of the eating pleasure to come.
First timers are well-served by the suggested steamed buns which offer a cozy bed for “Crispy Catfish with Spicy Selma Slaw” and “Sweet Soy Braised Short Rib w/Honkie Sauce.”
The Shindigs menu also offers a diverse group of burgers, all served on Continental Bakery’s custom-made Sweet Potato Rolls: Delizioso — “Loch Duart Salmon, Crispy Prosciutto, Smoked Mozzarella, Balsamic Onions, Mike Dean’s Lettuces & Basil Yogurt;” Willis Burger — “Grass-fed Beef, Blueberry Mostarda, Gorgonzola, Truffle Sauce, & Watercress;” and Swinage a Trois— “Duroc Pork (Pattied, Pulled and Baconed), Mirliton Chow Chow & Spanked Peach Saus.” Also served on a sweet potato roll, the Bama Roll includes “Royal Red Shrimp and Crawfish, Bloody Mary Yogurt, Pea Tendrils & Fines Herbes.”
Dreamcakes — “Cupcakes Make People Happy”
Cruising under the logo “Cupcakes Make People Happy,” Homewood’s Dreamcakes Bakery joined the rolling restaurants about 18 months ago. During the week, two cupcake trucks visit sites all over the Birmingham area and one often joins Spoonfed Grill and Shindigs during lunch.
These trucks make appearances out in Irondale, at the Summit, around the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and occasionally have a “Wild Card Day” where customers who have collected a crowd call and invite the truck to join them.
While the energetic bakers at Dreamcakes continually experiment with new types of cupcakes for their seemingly endless repertoire, the trucks always load up four basic choices which are offered daily at the bakery. Two are white velvet cake — Over the Moon (“filled with vanilla buttercream, topped with an addictive vanilla bean buttercream and white chocolate curls”) and Wedding Cake (“with an almond buttercream filling and frosting.”) The other two are “decadent chocolate cake” — Chocolate High (“filled with a rich ganache, topped with a chocolate drizzle and a chocolate malt ball”) and Caramel Sea Salt Mocha (“topped with a mocha buttercream, a drizzle of caramel and a sprinkle of sea salt.)
Then the drivers add some variety to the mix with several more choices which might include Cookies and Cream, Red Velvet, Peanut Butter Cup, or Curious George. The delicate cakes shine through under a mound of extra tasty icing that makes the heart sing. One of the drivers, obviously very pleased to deliver happiness, noted, “People are always excited about cupcakes.”
Fresh Off the Bun — Vietnamese Flair with a Cajun Kick
Tosha Tran’s Fresh Off the Bun truck just recently started rolling. Glowing with energy and enthusiasm, this young chef was raised in New Orleans after her family came to the United States from South Vietnam.
She brings the wonderful combination of Vietnamese cuisine matched with years of family restaurant experience which also showcases Cajun food. For about a decade, Tasha explored her passion for nursing.
Now using that career’s knowledge related to overall good health, Tosha is focused on her passion for creating fresh, healthy food based on the exciting mixture of cultures she experienced growing up in New Orleans.
Echoing the sentiment of other food truck chefs who unanimously agree that the trucks open the door for creativity with the menu, Tosha devises dishes for private catering, special events, and will soon join the other trucks on the street. One of her latest creations, a Strawberry Lettuce Wrap, debuted at a recent food truck round-up. She offered this dish with three choices — Caramelized Pork, Cajun Chicken, and Blackened Tofu, served on locally grown lettuce with cabbage, carrots, and shallots, sprinkled with almonds and drizzled with Sweet Strawberry Chili Cilantro Sauce.
Her early in the game best seller is a Vietnamese Taco, easy to eat and perfect for events. A corn tortilla, made locally daily, is topped with one of her three pork, chicken, or tofu choices and is then enhanced with cabbage, cilantro, and mint before being finished with a sprinkle of Sriracha Aioli. Sriracha is an Asian Chili Sauce frequently used in Vietnamese dishes.
Tosha also bakes the whole wheat baguettes for her beautiful Banh mi sandwiches and the noodles for her Pho, a light, savory Vietnamese noodle soup. In all her preparations, she keeps individuals with special dietary needs or preferences in mind as she serves vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free items.
Tosha’s vibrantly painted lime green and yellow truck is sure to draw attention as it travels the streets of Birmingham and shares her one-of-a kind menu with a receptive audience.
Offering dishes to delight the palate and the sense of well-being, Birmingham’s truck chefs make certain hungry patrons do not have to hit the road following John T. Edge’s example. Their success guaranteed as each chef brings his or her own unique twist to the truck table, the sky is the limit for food trucks in Birmingham.
Note to readers: The Freshworks! Festival, set for Saturday, June 16, from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m., at the Gardens of Park Place, 701 25th Street North, Birmingham, will feature several local food trucks as well as some from other cities. Admission is free for this family-friendly event which benefits the Jones Valley Teaching Farm and will include chef demonstrations, music and fresh items from local farmers and producers.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 205-387-2890.